Today was the eight year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Even though I don’t write about it every year, I do still take this as a day of remembrance.
When I saw the news about the tsunami that struck Japan, I panicked. I frantically emailed and Facebook messaged people over in Japan, desperate to hear if everyone was alright. A friend I studied abroad with the year before was right there, but she survived. My host families were alright, but in mourning. People they knew were gone.
The numbers of missing and dead increased. In the end, over 18,000 lives were lost. The after shocks rocked the whole eastern coast for over a year afterwards. I remember vividly just feeling so helpless while watching the news. It broke my heart to see a country I loved so much in such deep pain. I wanted to be there, to somehow help.
Then, I got on the JET Program in 2011, in July. I went into an apartment with problematic water and gas issues. I wasn’t supposed to cook with water from the tap, but go get water from the grocery store every other day. I biked over broken and shifted roads, as in roads shifted all the way over from their original placements.
(Exerpt from 5 Years Later: Reflections on March 11th)
When I arrived in Itako, so many of the roads were cracked, shifted sideways, or in waves. The school across the street from me had a long crack up the side still being repaired. Most of the buildings in the area dropped an inch into the ground after the earthquake hit; due to the rice farming, the entire region was so soft underneath the ground just gave way.
For a month or so, if I wanted clean water to drink and cook with, I’d have to bike all the way out to the supermarket to get water. I’d fill it up and lug it home with the groceries in a backpack killing my shoulders. The whole time I was doing it, I knew I was lucky because so many others were facing he grief of losing family, friends, and homes. I just had to do some exercise. Nothing I experienced could even come close to that kind of awful.
I was amazed at how resilient my Japanese co-workers and students were about everything. Even though their country just went through something terribly traumatic, they were still able to work forward towards getting back to normal. My teachers often praised me for coming to Japan after the earthquake, calling me brave, but I feel like my boarding a plane and their surviving a natural disaster weren’t comparable.
My students just rolled with the aftershocks, of which there were many in the year to follow, even if they sometimes needed to hold my hand when a big one struck during class. They’d still move on, go to the next class, keep trucking through. I really admired all of them for being so strong, even if they didn’t think of it.
Over the three years I lived there, I watched as everything slowly transformed. The roads around my apartment were done one at a time, painstakingly thorough in trying to make them straight again. You’d never know that the buildings are two inches shorter with all the stairs and foundations redone. When the construction finally died down, everyone relaxed and got into a groove of normalcy again. The cracks in the buildings and the psyches became faded lines that you had to look for, and if you weren’t looking you wouldn’t even see them at all.
I worked and taught in a place that suffered from many, many aftershocks for the first year and a half, though. There were a lot of earthquake alarms, and the whole apartment would sway back and forth constantly. I eventually grew to just accept it, but it was a wild ride.
In February 17th of 2013, I participated in the Kashima Friendship Association Japanese Speech Contest and talked about the 3/11 tragedy. However, I kind of always regretted how that speech felt a bit self-involved. I wish I could’ve spoken more about how inspiring my teachers and students were for making their lives and their city come back together.
I also wished I had shared the stories of the people who went through everything, too. I got around to it…in March of 2017, but I should’ve done that far earlier.
(Excerpt from Flashback Friday: On March 11th)
My predecessor, L, told me she was playing outside when it hit, and that no one could move, the entire world was shaking too hard. She had to take a taxi back home, but the roads were cracked open in some areas or completely shifted off to one side, like some surreal dystopian painting come to life.
L went home to find many of her things knocked down, the water off, and electricity unavailable. Even up until the day I moved in, I wasn’t supposed to use the water from the tap to drink or cook with. Instead, I had to bike twenty minutes or so to the nearest grocery store to get a huge tub of water in a plastic container.
In this hard time, the neighbors helped her out, and her friend, A, let her stay for a bit since her house wasn’t as affected as the main area of Itako. People pulled resources together to have meals, shared water when others had none, and kept their sense of community throughout the chaos.
The people in Mito weren’t as lucky in terms of damage. The JETs there relayed tales of broken bridges and roads, completely unusable. Only one or two JETs in the area had running water and electricity. Thankfully, they opened their doors to others, so people crammed into those apartments to take showers and essentially live there until things got back up and running again. If not for them, family members wouldn’t have known they were alive, they might’ve not had meals.
For people with diabetes, it was a nightmare scenario, since insulin requires both a doctor and a pharmacy but neither were available (same went for allergy and asthma problems). Luckily, friends helped out, and sometimes also the supervisors and co-workers. Medicine was found and given to the people who needed it most, even if it took all day to bike to one side of a city and back, people were getting the resources where they needed to go.
But sometimes the supervisors were unsympathetic. One Mito JET spoke about his supervisor harassing him into coming to school. Even though the students didn’t come and many other teachers weren’t there, they expected him to show up (for reasons he never really understood). The issue with the demands wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to go to work (he actually did, his school had electricity and internet access) but he couldn’t get there.
“When the earthquake hit, you know how L showed you the roads? Yeah, imagine the same thing for the trains. My station was busted up real bad.” He told me and picked up his smartphone to show me pictures. On his screen were downed power lines, resting over railroad tracks split in half.
“They kept trying to tell me ‘just take a taxi’ or something, but everyone was taking the taxi. It was an impossible thing to ask. They had family and friends, you know? But I just got here! I didn’t know anyone yet.”
But I do think there is some merit to collecting and sharing these stories even into today. Putting a spotlight on Tohoku and Fukushima is important, because recovery is very much still ongoing. Many people I know seem to be under the impression it’s all done and over, but for many people in Fukushima they are still living in “temporary” housing. Infrastructure is still lacking in some places in Miyagi as well.
And so going back to the five year anniversary post, I wrote about 3/11 all over again, but this time including fundraisers for Fukushima (as the government was getting called out for not helping the region recover).
Two fundraisers that I mentioned in the previous blog posts are the Taylor Anderson Fundraiser, so named after the JET participant who died in the tsunami, and as always, the Red Cross. (However, note that the Red Cross is giving priority to the Hokkaido 2018 earthquake now.
And also, the Japan Red Cross is everywhere. Giving blood in times when there isn’t a disaster, like say right now, is better than right after a disaster strikes. I used to give blood annually when I was working in schools, but I skipped last year because of health reasons.
However, there are still other organizations out there! Another active group in Tohoku is the JCS Rainbow Project which is dedicated to helping children of Fukushima recover. Every year the Japan Club of Sydney brings over children from Japan to share their stories and they send aid to Japan.
Another organization is the Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund. They are still taking donations for both the Tohoku Earthquake and the Kumamoto Earthquake from 2016.
A big rebuilding project for Fukushima is Asubito Fukushima, General Incorporated Association. “Asubito” is their own Japanese mixed word that means, “people who create tomorrow, people who clear the path to tomorrow.” It’s a huge project that intends to help both reconstruction and fostering math as well as science skills in local Fukushima schools.
Nowadays, less and less programs have calls for volunteers in the Tohoku and Fukushima areas. At the same time, if you want to volunteer, Peace Boat has volunteering activities all across the country to help with disaster relief. I personally recommend going through Peace Boat if you’re a native English speaker. It is possible to volunteer through the Red Cross as well, but I’ve been told they’re looking for more Japanese speaking volunteers instead of English speakers.
On this day of remembrance, it’s important to reflect and mourn those lost. Then, it’s also important to spotlight those places still affected and give them what aid we can to help. As a teacher, most of the fundraisers here are focusing on how to help kids in schools. Around Christmas time I try to still send gifts to children in Fukushima or Tohoku, because usually it’s the children affected most by the disasters.
Even after eight years or ten or twenty, recovery will still be going on and people will still be remembering this tragedy. Other tragedies have come along as well, so we add them into this cultural narrative of shared mourning. I hope that in time the healing will come, but we’re still not completely done. I’m still here, and I’ll still keep trying to help.
Bonus: This is a really well done documentary style video about after the tsunami. Highly recommend it, but get your tissues prepared.